Cusco: A Puma at the Centre of the World
During the rule of the Inca, Cusco (also spelled “Cuzco”) was not only the political seat of the empire; it served as a cultural and religious centre as well. According to Inca legend, it was constructed for the great Inca ruler Pachacutec. What ensued was a well thought-out city crafted of perfectly cut stone, which was often layered in gold. It encompassed sewage and drainage systems that were very advanced and efficient for this remote culture. The design of the city was said to mimic the outline of a puma, a sacred animal of the Inca.
The Spanish took control of Cusco in 1534, setting up Manco Inca as a puppet governor. In this fashion, the Spanish ruled the empire for almost two years before Manco Inca rebelled and tried in vain to fight off the Spanish. Cusco was later set ablaze by the Incas in a last and ultimately ill-fated attempt to corner the Spanish. What remains of Cusco is an interesting array of Incan foundations beneath a colonial Spanish village.
“Magnificent, but Unforgivable”
In the 1920s it was the Andean capital for arts and culture, with bob-top haircuts and jazz music, tennis clubs, and pisco sours served on verandas throughout the town; its unique blend of European and Andean cultures found a home in the valley. You can still see remnants of this mix in paintings of the Last Supper hung high in the cathedrals, which feature images of the apostles dining on cuy or Guinea pig, a local delicacy.
Today’s Cusco is thus a fascinating blend of two opposing forces. Christopher Isherwood described it best in his 1948 book The Condor and the Cow, “What remains with you is the sense of a great outrage, magnificent but unforgivable. The Spaniards tore down the Inca temples and grafted splendid churches and mansions onto their foundations. This is one of the most beautiful monuments to bigotry and sheer stupid brutality in the whole world.”
Like most Incan sites, Sacsayhuaman (pronounced, I swear, “saxy woman”) remains something of a mystery to archaeologists. Though the Spanish referred to it as a fortress—and it was in fact used as a fortress when Manco Inca tried to win back the freedom of his people—recent research indicates that it may have been a temple in earlier times.
Whatever its function, it certainly must have communicated the power and grandiosity of the Incan people to all its visitors. Even today, one cannot help but feel awestruck by the precision with which the enormous stones were fit together along its zigzagging walls.
About the Author
A true world wanderer, B&R Guide and Trip Designer Tyler Dillon amassed a wealth of knowledge in his decade spent traipsing the globe. As a columnist for The Slow Road, he provides travelling tips and advice, and sharing insights, anecdotes and his passion for the road. He assures us he’s not pulling our leg on the pronunciation of Sacsayhuaman.
Banner image: Martin St-Amant – Wikipedia – CC-BY-SA-3.0
Sacsayhuaman image: By David Stanley from Nanaimo, Canada (Saqsaywman Fortress Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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